Looking For the Dead in Durand

A westbound Canadian National auto rack train takes the Chicago connection in Durand, Michigan. This line once hosted Grand Trunk Western Steam into 1960 among other ghosts.

Author Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida a short book of essays published in 1980 about the essence of photography that making photographs “is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead.”

Photographs are a way of freezing people and moments in time and keeping them alive long after they have passed away.

Writing in The New Yorker, author Louis Menand expounded on that thought by saying that as we look at photographs, “we imagine one day looking at them when the people in them are no longer alive. Even when you look at a photo of some random person, anyone, taken years ago, somewhere in your mind the thought creeps in: ‘And that person is probably now dead.’ ”

Menand was writing about a photo exhibit of an event that occurred 50 years ago and many of those who were there probably are deceased.

I thought about that as I stood around in Durand, Michigan, early last month on a warm afternoon waiting for Canadian National to come back to life.

I was spending time at the restored Durand Union Station, which once served passenger trains of the Grand Trunk Western and the Ann Arbor.

It was not difficult to imagine people standing on these platforms waiting for a train to take them far away.

Given that the last Grand Trunk passenger train halted here 47 years ago, it is easy to conclude that many who boarded those trains from these concrete platforms are now deceased.

But my thoughts went beyond long-ago passengers. Much railroad history has been made in Durand.

The Grand Trunk was the last railroad in Chicago to assign steam locomotives to intercity passenger trains and those would have served Durand through 1957.

But steam powered-varnish through Durand lasted even longer.

The last daily steam-powered passenger trains ran between Durand and Detroit’s Brush Street station until steam bowed out after pulling Nos. 21/56 on March 27, 1960.

That event was celebrated in the Spring 2018 issue of Classic Trains magazine.

As I studied the photographs on Page 28 of that issue I thought about how many of those with cameras or just the merely curious who lined the tracks to witness the last of steam in revenue service must now be just as gone as the trains they watched and rode.

What happened to their photographs? Do people still tell stories about how grandpa used to talk about the last GTW steam trip?

In the late 1960s, the GTW sought to fight back against the decline of intercity rail passenger service by launching a fast Chicago-Detroit passenger train named the Mohawk.

Durand was the first stop westbound and last stop eastbound of Nos. 164 and 165, stopping at 5:06 p.m. en route to Chicago and 8:24 p.m. en route to Detroit.

Durand also saw the Maple Leaf, a Chicago-Toronto train jointly operated by the GTW and parent Canadian National. What was it like in Durand when these trains still ran?

Durand had no passenger trains between May 1971 and September 1974. With the help of the State of Michigan Amtrak started the Chicago-Port Huron Blue Water, a train that still runs.

But I have enough of a history of being at Durand to remember when this train was known as the Chicago-Toronto International and had VIA Rail Canada F40 locomotives on the point.

I liked the International because it arrived in Durand in mid-afternoon in both directions.

But I wasn’t around in the early years of the International when it operated with VIA LRC coaches.

Nor was I around in the early years of the Blue Water when Amtrak’s Midwest corridor trains had a variety of equipment and E units to pull it.

Because Durand can be dead for long periods of time, you have plenty of time to imagine the past and what used to look like here.

It was late afternoon by the time the Holly Subdivision to Pontiac and Detroit came back to life.

The headlight coming westward wasn’t a steam-powered commuter train or the Mohawk or even a hot GTW freight train.

It was a CN auto rack train with a cut of general merchandise cars.

I photographed it and watched it go around the Chicago connection to the Flint Sub. What would who stood on this platform 50 years ago, 60 years or 70 years ago think about what they would see today?

Will someone 40 years from now be just as interested in Durand in 2018 as I was of Durand in 1960 or 1970?

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